I will never forget Mrs Levi’s passion. It was one of the very few positives I took from Hammersmith County School, to be honest.
She taught Classical studies and she was wonderful at bringing an entirely ethereal feel to the lessons. She painted a magical and surreal picture in our imaginations and, being a creative type myself, it resonated with me so very, very much.
I’d go as far as to say that we were kindred spirits. I felt like I was walking among the gods when she taught. She made it easy to fall in love with Classics – does that make sense? My memory’s not great, but she liked me, I remember that, and I think that she liked me because I was willing to go to that place with her. To join her on that journey.
It was that passion she transferred to us, the kids, and that’s a pretty important life lesson that transcends the classroom. If you show passion, it’ll be infectious.
I remember a school trip to see a stage performance of a Classics story, I forget which one, and Mrs Levi was sat behind me. I heard her turn to another teacher and say: “If one of these actors told me to jump from this very balcony, I would.”
She was so enthralled by the performance – it was so real to her and she was so all-consumed by it – that she would have taken any instruction that came from the stage, even if it was life-threatening. Now that’s a woman who’s willing to let her imagination dance. I will remember those words all my life.
She was a very confident but fair woman. She recognised excellence – if you got an A, you sure as hell deserved it. Her mind was quick and she loved to hear how we, the students, interpreted a story; what we were feeling. When you engage a student at that level it’s holistic, it’s total, it’s organic. That’s where you get the best results. She never had to come down hard on us because we were always on her side. And not only that, she was on our side. She’d go into bat for us – and we knew that.
She was a rarity in that school. It wasn’t a great place. I started at Hammersmith County when I was 11 and by the age of 13, I was totally disillusioned. It wasn’t easy being a young, black student at that time. I don’t know how hard it is now, but then, certainly, it was tough.
There were black girls who were top of their class when they entered the school and they just didn’t get the support that they needed to excel. Everybody that I knew left and went on to do very well, but not with the blessing or the support of the education system. They had to seek all this out after leaving at 18. Why was that? I’m not sure. We were working class, for one, and a lot of the teachers were middle class.
If it had just been me, I could have chalked it up as an anomaly, but a whole swathe of girls were let down. I felt that we spent our days in school fighting to understand a subject but also fighting for our own academic space, and it should never be like that. Not for anybody who’s trying to learn.
I’m sure at that school that there were preconceived ideas in many teachers’ minds about who we were and, because of that, they never got close to finding out who we really were.
What was so refreshing was that Mrs Levi had none of those preconceptions. She didn’t care you if were green with blue spots, if you were a good student who was willing to listen and learn, she gave you everything you needed to succeed in her subject. And I guess she learned who I really was.
Heather Small was speaking to Tom Cullen. She is currently touring the UK. For dates and box office information, go to heathersmall.co.uk
Moving on up
Born 20 January 1965, West London
Education Thomas Jones Primary School, Ladbroke Grove; Hammersmith County School (which is now called Phoenix High School and has turned around its reputation)
Career Winner of two Brit awards and the Mercury Music Prize during her time with M People, whose singles include Moving On Up, One Night In Heaven, and Search For the Hero. Her solo career includes the hit Proud